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06.15.10

Floating Above the Chaos

Obama seized the crisis, all right. But he praised people we've lost confidence in—and proved anew that the president doesn’t know much about management.

Obama’s speech was a strong energy bill pitch, necessary and resounding—a good use of the Rahm Emanuel theory that you should never let a crisis go to waste.

But he didn’t do what was needed: convey the sense that the CEO is back from offsite and now deeply, viscerally engaged in the messy process of management. The speech showcased what he has always shown us he is good at—articulating the overarching goal, and ramping up the rhetoric to meet it. But he cited too many names that have already lost our vote. Salazar, you’re doing a helluva job! Obama’s supposedly stellar Secretary of the Interior strikes the rest of us as doing a good impersonation of being all hat and no cattle—the guy who called himself the “sheriff” but put few of the miscreants at MMS under arrest. And Energy Secretary Steven Chu, leading what Obama called “a team of nation’s best scientists and engineers” in combating the spill, even as he ups the estimate of how much is gushing out from the ocean floor: the fishermen of the Gulf probably have views of where he can put his Nobel.

Obama, for all his brilliance, has no real, felt understanding of management structures or of business.

The speech made me no less uneasy about the grotesque spaghetti of the org charts for BP and the government cleanup effort: both of which have terrifyingly unclear chains of command. Obama did a riff about all the challenges America has faced and overcome. “The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet,” he said. “You know, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon.”

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But Obama’s speech begged the question of why, if America always pushes its bounds to what it can do, 57 days into it the Gulf clean-up is still in such head-scratching chaos.

His reinforcement of a six-month moratorium on deep-sea drilling for safety checks reprised my conviction, that Obama, for all his brilliance, has no real, felt understanding of management structures or of business. Surely it was weirdly trusting of him, when he knew the MMS was corrupt, to start the offshore drilling initiative without those safety guarantees already empirically nailed down. And surely his crack team of sheriffs and admirals and Nobel laureates could now pull some all-nighters and retool the safety measures in a matter of weeks, not months. Senator Mary Landrieu came on Larry King afterwards to point out in her creamy decorous way that the Louisiana oil industry would essentially be dead and buried if it waited that long. But back in the Oval Office, Obama’s conceptual gaze had been turned only on the big picture, the overarching mission, which is the place where he shines.

Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown.